As U.K. Prime Minister, Truss Faces Hard Times and Johnson’s Ghost

LONDON — In 1994, a passionate 19-year-old Oxford student, Elizabeth Truss, called for a referendum to abolish the British monarchy, telling an audience of fellow Liberal Democrats, “We do not believe that people should be born to rule.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Truss will travel to a Scottish castle to be anointed by Queen Elizabeth II as Britain’s new prime minister, completing a political odyssey from rabble-rousing republican to tradition-cloaked leader of the Conservative Party.

Ms. Truss, now 47 and known as Liz, long ago pivoted to embrace the monarchy as being good for British democracy, just as she long ago abandoned the Liberal Democrats for the Conservatives. More recently, she switched sides on Brexit, opposing the drive for Britain to leave the European Union before the 2016 referendum, then reversing course to become one of its most ardent evangelists.

Her ideological dexterity — critics would call it opportunism — has helped propel Ms. Truss to the pinnacle of British politics. How well it will prepare her for the rigors of the job is another question, given the dire economic trends enveloping the country, and a Tory party that seems torn between desire for a fresh start and regret about tossing out her flamboyant, larger-than-life predecessor, Boris Johnson.

Ms. Truss at a campaign event in Manchester, England, in August. Her message centered on lower taxes and smaller government.Credit…Molly Darlington/Reuters

By her own admission, Ms. Truss has little of Mr. Johnson’s charisma. Awkward where he is easygoing, staccato where he is smooth, she nevertheless scaled the party’s ranks with what colleagues describe as nerve, drive and an appetite for disruptive politics. When Mr. Johnson fell into trouble last year, she positioned herself adroitly, never publicly breaking with him while burnishing her leadership credentials as a hawkish foreign secretary.

“She has so much confidence in her instincts,” said Marc Stears, a political scientist who tutored Ms. Truss when she was at Oxford. “She is willing to take risks and say the kinds of things that other people aren’t willing to say. Sometimes, that works for her; other times, it hurts her.”

Ms. Truss will need all her instincts and agility to navigate the job she is inheriting from Mr. Johnson. Drummed out of office by his party’s lawmakers after a string of scandals, he has left behind a daunting pile of problems, not unlike those that confronted Margaret Thatcher when she became Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979 during a previous period of economic hardship.

Ms. Truss has modeled herself on Thatcher, posing on a tank like her heroine once did in West Germany and wearing silk pussy-bow blouses, a staple of the Thatcher wardrobe. But her politics more closely resemble those of another hero of the right, Ronald Reagan: a clarion call for lower taxes and smaller government, coupled with a celebration of post-Brexit Britain as an “aspiration nation.”

That message appealed to the 160,000 or so mostly white and mostly aging members of the Conservative Party, who chose it over the hard truths offered by her opponent, Rishi Sunak, a former chancellor of the Exchequer. Now, she will have to pivot yet again, to lead a diverse, divided country facing its worst economic news in a generation.

Ms. Truss last month with her opponent for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Rishi Sunak.Credit…Susannah Ireland/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“One of the things that has benefited Liz Truss is that she’s tribal,” said Jill Rutter, a senior research fellow at U.K. in a Changing Europe, a research institute in London. “She’s very willing to embrace everything about a team. The trouble with being a team player is she now needs to define the agenda.”

Born in 1975, four years before Thatcher took power, Ms. Truss grew up in an avowedly left-wing family, with a father who was a mathematician and a mother who was a teacher and nurse. She talks often of going to a public high school in the hard-knocks city of Leeds, which she said “let down” its students with low expectations, little opportunity and a local council caught in the grip of political correctness.

The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

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The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

Turmoil at Downing Street. Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson said he would step down less than three years after a landslide election victory, following a series of scandals that have ensnared his government. Here’s what led to this:

The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

The Pincher case. Mr. Johnson’s downfall is connected with the resignation of Chris Pincher, a Conservative deputy chief whip, after he admitted to having groped two men. Outrage grew as it was revealed that Mr. Johnson was aware of prior sexual misconduct allegations against him when he appointed him; the prime minister had previously denied knowing about the accusations.

The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

A wave of resignations. The revelations prompted the unexpected resignation of two of Mr. Johnson’s highest-ranking ministers — the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and the health secretary, Sajid Javid. That was followed by a flurry of resignations of other ministers and officials, capped by Mr. Johnson’s decision to step down.

The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

The ‘Partygate’ scandal. Since late last year, Mr. Johnson had been grappling with reports about parties he attended in Downing Street while Covid lockdown rules were in force. An internal inquiry found that 83 people violated the rules at parties, and the police imposed hundreds of fines, including one on Mr. Johnson, for breaches of social distancing. Mr. Johnson survived a no-confidence vote triggered by the scandal, but was left reeling politically.

The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

Other scandals. The prime minister’s reputation had also been tarnished by his staunch defense of a Conservative lawmaker for violating lobbying rules, his government’s contentious plans to change the system that investigated that lawmaker and the costly refurbishment of his apartment at No. 10 Downing Street, for which he secretly used funds from a Conservative Party donor.

Some of her contemporaries dispute her account of her school days. They note that she grew up in a comfortable district of the city that long voted Conservative. They also accuse her of slighting her teachers, who helped her gain admission — after a year living in Canada with her family — to Merton College, one of the most academically rigorous of the Oxford colleges.

At Oxford, Ms. Truss studied philosophy, politics and economics, an elite degree program that has produced a club of prominent politicians, including a former prime minister, David Cameron. Some have criticized the program for putting a premium on being smooth-talking and a quick study. But Mr. Stears said Ms. Truss did not conform to the cliché of a P.P.E. student.

“Her particular skill was not to master a brief or be glib or facile, but to come up with something unexpected,” he said. “Every piece of work she came up with was provocative. She revels in controversy and provoking people.”

Ms. Truss has modeled herself after Margaret Thatcher, but her politics in some ways more closely resemble those of another hero of the right, Ronald Reagan.Credit…Helmuth Lohmann/Associated Press

Politics drew her early, and Ms. Truss became president of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats, where she campaigned to legalize marijuana. Soon after graduating in 1996, however, she switched to the Conservatives, a party then careering into the political wilderness. She worked in the private sector, for the energy giant Shell and for Cable & Wireless, qualifying as a chartered accountant.

In 2000, Ms. Truss married Hugh O’Leary, an accountant she met at a party conference and with whom she now has two daughters. Her personal life briefly threatened her career in 2005, after she had an extramarital relationship with a married member of Parliament, Mark Field, whom the party had appointed as her political mentor. Mr. Field’s marriage broke up; Ms. Truss’s survived.

Elected to Parliament in 2010 as a member for South West Norfolk, Ms. Truss went on to hold six ministerial jobs under three Conservative prime ministers. Her track record, people who know her said, was mixed, and she struggled with public speaking.

While serving as environment secretary in 2014, she was widely mocked for a speech in which she lightly noted that Britain imported two-thirds of its cheese, then switched to a scowl and added portentously, “That is a disgrace!”

The Political Situation in Britain

After getting ensnared in various scandals, Boris Johnson said he would step down as prime minister of Britain, clearing the way for a new leadership race inside the Conservative Party.

  • Johnson’s Lies: The British prime minister thought he could swagger his way through any scandal, but his cavalier attitude toward the truth brought an end to his tumultuous tenure.
  • Final Candidates: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss emerged as the last two contenders vying to succeed Mr. Johnson. In making their pitch to voters, they both drew inspiration from Margaret Thatcher.
  • Economic Woes: As energy prices and inflation soar, critics say that the bitter leadership race to replace Mr. Johnson left Britons in limbo at a tumultuous moment.
  • What’s Next for Johnson?: Few expect the departing British prime minister to cede the spotlight, or abandon the prospect of one day regaining his position.

She was more persuasive in campaigning against Britain’s exit from the European Union. Speaking to a food and beverage industry group, Ms. Truss said, “I think the British people are sensible people. They understand fundamentally that economically, Britain will be better off staying in a reformed E.U.”

After the 2016 vote, Ms. Truss reversed course to become a Brexit cheerleader. “I was wrong, and I am prepared to admit I was wrong,” she said recently, contending that the warnings about the calamitous effects of Brexit had been overblown and that it had, in fact, unleashed benefits.

While few fault Ms. Truss for her youthful switch from Liberal Democrat to Tory, many criticize her retroactive endorsement of Brexit. “That’s not a serious answer,” said Ms. Rutter of U.K. in a Changing Europe. “The evidence is mounting up that if you make trade with your biggest trading partner more difficult, it hurts your economy.”

The U-turn did not hinder her career. Ms. Truss cycled through jobs in the Justice Department and the Treasury before Mr. Johnson named her international trade minister in 2019. She roamed the world, signing post-Brexit trade agreements with Japan, Australia and other countries. Analysts noted they were largely cut-and-paste versions of European Union deals, but she reaped the publicity.

“Very early on, it appeared to me that she was a likely candidate for prime minister,” said Robert E. Lighthizer, who opened talks on a trans-Atlantic deal with Ms. Truss as President Donald J. Trump’s trade representative.

Along the way, Ms. Truss expressed a fascination with disruptive forces, like the ride-hailing service Uber. She once posted on Twitter that the younger generation of Britons were “#Uber-riding #Airbnb-ing #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters.”

“She’s been very keen to define herself as a disrupter and to make a link from that to a political approach that would benefit the country,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of Chatham House, the London research institution. “There is something refreshing about that, as well as obviously a danger.”

Like Thatcher, she also presents herself as a fierce defender of Western democracy. Elevated to foreign secretary in 2021, Ms. Truss outflanked even Mr. Johnson in her hard line against Russia. “Putin must lose in Ukraine,” she declared last March during a visit to Lithuania. She held a famously icy meeting on the eve of the war with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.

Ms. Truss, colleagues say, will relish the prospect of facing off against Mr. Putin. But some predict her bigger nemesis will be Mr. Johnson. Ambitious and still popular with the Tory grass roots, he is likely to remain a news-making fixture — one who could taunt Ms. Truss from the backbenches of Parliament or in a newspaper column, according to Gavin Barwell, who served as chief of staff to Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.

“He’s going to be like Banquo’s ghost,” Mr. Barwell said, referring to the apparition who tormented Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “The moment she gets into political difficulty, there’s going to be a bring-back-Boris movement.”

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